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Landlords Agree to Settlement in Harassment Case

By Jorge Casuso

In a settlement touted by city officials and sneered at by landlord representatives, the owners of a Santa Monica apartment building have agreed to pay $1,500 to a tenant they are charged with harassing.

The settlement with the city, which was signed by a judge last week, also calls for a permanent injunction prohibiting the landlords from further acts of harassment.

The city's lawsuit, the tenth filed under Santa Monica's five-year-old Tenant Harassment law, had charged the owners - Azita Efraim, Rochester Fund II and Pacific Bower Corp. - with harassing a female tenant to force her to vacate so they could raise the rent.

The alleged acts at the building at Eleventh Street and Arizona Avenue included refusing the tenant's rent payments and then attempting to evict her for non-payment of rent and refusing to perform repairs and suggesting that the tenant leave, according to the City Attorneys office. The landlords also allegedly charged the tenant improper "late fees" in violation of the lease.

"Vacancy decontrol has tempted many local landlords to resort to illegal actions to get their tenants out," said Deputy City Attorney Adam Radinsky, referring to a state law that allows landlords to change market rates for vacant units. "This is a fair settlement that will help protect the tenants at this building in the future."

But landlord representatives scoffed at the settlement, calling the amount awarded "chump change."

"The City Attorneys office uses the big club and then gives us a thousand dollar settlement," said landlord attorney Gordon P. Gitlen. "That's embarrassing. That's chump change. Excuse me, but what happened to small claims court?"

Landlord activists contend that the settlement only shows how desperate the city is to find harassment cases to please their tenant constituents.

"It's bogus," said Herb Balter, president of ACTION Apartment Association, which represents many of the city's small landlords. "How many vacancies have there been? Thousands. And there have been only 10 cases. It's like taking a sledgehammer because you have a bumblebee on your nose. They make a big deal of it."

Radinsky counters that the 10 cases - seven of them criminal and three civil -- represent only a small percentage of the nearly 300 complaints received by the city since the harassment law went into effect in October 1995.

"The majority of the complaints we are able to resolve without resorting to the courts," Radinsky said. "The law is intended for the most egregious cases. The courts are there as a last resort."

Radinsky said the city attorneys office took up the most recent case when it was presented with evidence that the landlord had tried to evict the tenant without a good faith basis for bringing the case to court.

"They were just trying to get the tenant out of the unit," Radinsky said. "This was the case of a landlord taking legal action against a tenant based on non-payment when the landlord had refused similar payments."

Last year, the City Council amended the Tenant Harassment law to make failure to accept a rent payment a separate violation of the ordinance, Radinsky said.

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